Persuasion: Greek Rhetoric in Action

By Ian Worthington | Go to book overview

5

Power and oratory in democratic Athens: Demosthenes 21, against Meidias

Josiah Ober

To study politics and political life is to study power and the play of power. But what is power? A simple definition of a powerful entity might be ‘one with the ability to satisfy its own desires by instrumentally affecting the behaviour of others’. 1 This simple definition leaves a lot undecided: what sorts of entities are we talking about (individuals? corporate groups?), and what are their desires? These questions can be answered (at least in a preliminary way) by applying the definition to a concrete historical situation. In the case of fourth-century Athens, it is clear enough that there were powerful individuals within society—most obviously wealthy men capable of affecting the behaviour of workers (whether slave or free) and of satisfying their desires for material goods by appropriating the surplus generated by the labour of others. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the fourth-century Athenian demos, as a collective entity, was powerful in that it was often able to satisfy its desires for (inter alia) autarchy (in the Aristotelian sense) and autonomy by affecting the behaviour of both Athenian citizens and others in a variety of ways (for example, by levying taxes and paying soldiers to protect state interests and assets). In Athens, as in other societies, the spheres dominated by different powerful entities sometimes came into conflict; notable among these conflicts was the clash between public and private interests. There was a high potential for discord between powerful Athenian individuals (for example, rich men who wished to retain the use of their wealth to satisfy their private desires) and the demos (which was determined to put some part of that wealth to public use in ensuring autarchy and autonomy). A good number of ‘individual vs. community’ conflicts were eventu-

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